The Northeast State Theater Department presents the stage version of George Romero’s classic horror film Night of the Living Dead in what may be as close to zombie 3-D movie as a live audience can experience.
“The audience is held captive to the action on stage,” says Brad McKenzie, the play’s director and adjunct faculty member at Northeast State. “Night of the Living Dead is a terror play, but it is also a period piece. I really wanted my students to have that experience.”
While not a scene-by-scene remake, the play stays true to Romero’s apocalyptic vision. A man and woman find themselves trapped in a house surrounded by zombies. They meet a family and another couple who argue, plan, and fight as the living dead descend upon them.
The first weekend’s performances run Oct. 25-27 at 7:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. on Oct. 27-28 at Wellmont Regional Center for the Performing Arts Theater on the main campus at Blountville. The production’s second weekend continues Nov. 1 – 3 at 7:30 p.m. and matinee showings at 2 p.m. on Nov. 3 and 4.
Northeast State student Richard Jackson plays Ben, the level-headed leader who keeps his wits while trying to keep the group of survivors alive. He approached his role by suspending any disbelief of the plot.
“I felt like I was put into a totally different world,” he says. “You look the news today, the uncertainty of the times, and realize anything can happen. The play puts you in a world where everything has broken down, and humans must find a way to survive.”
A Science Hill High School graduate, Jackson performed in the high school theater productions of Miracle on 42nd Street and White Christmas. He also participated as a forensics competitor with the Science Hill Showstoppers team.
“Acting is where my heart is,” says Jackson. “My theater experiences have been some of the best times of my life. Once I got involved in acting I couldn’t get enough of it.”
Fellow student Anne Rowell plays the iconic character Barbara who meets Ben after she and her brother Johnny encounter a zombie in the cemetery. Rowell made her first stage appearance in Oedipus Rex. Her portrayal of Barbara demands fear, desperation, and strength.
“No matter how much you rehearse have to prepare for something unexpected,” says Rowell, a double major in Psychology and English at Northeast State. “Theater requires that you are there in the moment.”
McKenzie says that Night of the Living Dead transcends simple scares. Boiled to the bones, the production explores Man’s oldest and deepest fear – the inevitability of death and what lies beyond the grave.
“The relationships of the characters in the play are same dynamics we face with each other on a daily basis. The acting is based on how people would survive in a zombie apocalypse,” he says. “It is a play about people and how people from different walks of life interact in a crisis, and how they are able to handle it, or not handle it.”
McKenzie adds that the work’s lingering themes of war and class warfare remain as relevant today as they did in the 1960s. The actors praise McKenzie as an instructor and director who introduced them to the nuances of theater.
“He showed me a very young and innovative perspective of the art,” says Rowell. “Theater has pushed me to get out of my comfort zone especially with this character.”
Northeast State student and artist Richard Curtis once again brings his considerable talents to a theater production. Curtis is creating the zombie make-up and special effects for the actors. His work on last season’s Oedipus Rex earned him an award for Best Make-up at the Region IV National Allied Design Technology Award at the Kennedy Center Theater Festival.
McKenzie’s vision includes a vivid and occasionally funny look at the make-up of the long dead and recently deceased. The costuming includes a cross-section of living dead from a bride and a hillbilly zombie to a paperboy and kids. The play also involves a series of fight scenes requiring intense rehearsal by the actors during “fight call” where the director choreographs the actors’ physical confrontations.
Student Dianne Faustino plays the bride zombie. She gets one of the most intense zombie roles and wears Curtis’s most terrifying mask/headpiece.
“It is a zombie play, and I thought it was a cool thing to do,” says Faustino, a Broadcasting major at Northeast State.
Daniel Lawson portrays the Gray Man, a recently deceased zombie terrorizing the living survivors on stage. Lawson brings previous experience in theater. He performed in high school musical productions of Oklahoma, Annie Get Your Gun, and Beauty and the Beast. He auditioned to stretch his experience beyond musical theater.
“The production is something old and new,” says Lawson, a Sullivan South High School graduate and first-year business management major at Northeast State. “We know the old zombies, but this puts a modern spin on the classic. The fact that Northeast State has the capability to put on a production of this caliber says a lot about the department and the college.”
The play also brings McKenzie full-circle as a director where his own passion for theater began. He graduated from Northeast State in 2001 before earning his bachelor’s degree at East Tennessee State University and his master’s degree of fine arts in Theater at the University of Southern Mississippi.
McKenzie says the entire production works off both fear and fun. Audiences should expect solid scares mixed with dark humor.
“Our play is like a drive-in movie where you come and have a good time,” says McKenzie.
The play is being produced by special arrangement with The Dramatic Publishing Company of Woodstock, Illinois.
Tickets are $10 general admission. Performances are free to current Northeast State students, but they must pick up tickets at the box office. Tickets can be purchased online here or at www.NortheastState.edu or at the theater box office between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.